Downtown Extension project needs regional vision and regional leadership, says new report

The Downtown Extension project to connect Caltrain to the Salesforce Transbay terminal should be rethought as a project that has value for the region, megaregion and state, according to a new report that was commissioned by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and presented for the first time on Tuesday.

Given the regional importance, the project should be reviewed to fit with connections on both ends – the increased level of Caltrain ridership called for by the Caltrain business plan service vision, and potential fit with a second transbay rail crossing. 

The Downtown Extension is already forecast to add 25K or more riders when it opens, providing better access to downtown San Jose jobs and transit connections. A broader vision would include serving passengers to and from the East Bay and Sacramento, supporting higher Caltrain corridor peak frequency by running trains through instead of having to back up out of a terminal station, not to mention serving trains to Southern California whenever that may be.

The obsolete funding plan needs to be updated, replacing unrealistic items – the report calls out the proposed passenger surcharge. And the project budget, last quoted at $4B, needs to assessed and likely pruned, to be ready for potential regional, state, and federal funding and putting the project out to bid. Before diving into additional engineering, the next important step is to decide on the type of contract, because with some of the options, the contractor would play a substantial role in the design and engineering details.

But the report’s recommendations would move the project to a two-year, temporary organization that could be a shaky base to get the stalled project moving. To move the project forward, the report recommends keeping the Transbay Joint Powers Authority board, and creating an interim staff organization for a two-year period, hiring an experienced executive manager for the two-year interregnum, supervising a staff from the various partner agencies, including Caltrain, the High Speed Rail Authority, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Tilly Chang, the head of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, said that the Memorandum of Understanding between the agencies that would create this interim organization is in progress but not yet complete. 

Need for leadership for the project, the transbay program, and the Bay Area transit network

The report calls for the development of champions for the project, and that’s not something a panel of out-of-town experts can accomplish. At the SFCTA board meeting where the report was presented, Chair Peskin was the only member of the board who spoke, in contrast to the next agenda item, where multiple board members had thoughtful and detailed comments on spending projects for local streets, bicycle and pedestrian improvements and programs.

By contrast, the BART-Silicon Valley project, which is seeing its share of challenges, has been consistently championed by leaders including Sam Liccardo, San Jose’s Mayor and Carl Guardino, head of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.  The ValleyLink project has risen from the ashes of the BART Livermore project with the leadership of Scott Haggerty. DTX has been languishing with the lack of political champions; a broader regional vision might help.

The vacuum in political leadership is complemented by a glaring hole in regional network planning and management. Projects like the Downtown Extension and Dumbarton Crossing seem like the proverbial elephant described by a group of blind people because there is nobody in charge of planning and coordinating the system as a seamless network, rather than a loosely connected set of parts. 

This regional leadership gap adds risk to the proposed 2-year interim phase to get the Downtown Extension project ready for funding and construction. Without a clear home for the project once the interim steps are carried out, we worry about the challenges of recruiting top talent to manage the transitional team, and in solving the interagency squabbles that have afflicted the program. 

In January, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will be holding a workshop proposing the consideration of a regional entity that could be in charge of planning, delivering, and coordinating the operations of big, regionally significant rail projects. We hope such an initiative moves forward because there is something clearly missing in the ability of the region to plan and deliver big projects to create a regional transit network where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.